Wednesday, December 18, 2013

This air-powered, life-size, Lego car is brilliant or insane or both

This air-powered, life-size, lego car is brilliant or insane or both.  First of all, just look at it!  It is made of more than 500,000 Lego pieces.  The entire engine is made of Legos, has 256 pistons and it runs on air pressure.  It can attain a top speed of 20 MPH.  Apparently some of the load bearing parts, tires and the drive train aren't made of Legos, so if you are making a pure Lego car, you don't need to worry about this project.  Still, the engine in particular is quite an achievement.  Well done Steve Sammartino and  Raul Oaida.  See the video to watch it move.

What other little bits of informations there are can be found at SuperAwesomeMicroProject.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Comparing the Renaissance to the maker culture/movement - please help Digital Diner

Hi Digital Diner Readers,

Widdakay is writing a research paper comparing/contrasting the Renaissance to the modern day maker culture/movement.  He can't interview people from the Renaissance, but he can question people now about the maker movement as it happens.  That is where you come in.  He has created a short questionnaire for makers and non-makers alike to help collect information about makers and the maker movement.  It only takes about 10 minutes to fill out and it would help him immensely if you would take a moment to answer the questions for him... and maybe even pass the questionnaire on to your friends.

Answer questionnaire here.

Thanks one and all.  Your opinion matters.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ah yes, the food extruder is finally coming...

Ever since a few years ago when I saw a sugar-based 3D printer, I've wondered when we would have a 3D food printer.  Finally, a company called Natural Machines is taking the leap to build such a device (see the video above).  They can print interesting shapes in chocolate and pasta.  It is a sort of a step beyond the Play-doh fun factory for food.  It's still in early stages of development, so the food in the video doesn't look too appetizing at this point, but the concept is good.

I really think they should apply a little more food science.  Just look at what we have learned from sous vide and the interesting results when you have exacting control of temperature of your ingredients.  Since 3D printers have heated nozzles, don't you think we could do some really accurate cooking at the same time.  Extrude your runny egg mixture, but then cook it to just the right texture as it leaves the nozzle (click here to learn more about exact egg cooking temperatures).  Maybe we could even include some frickin' lasers to do some spot cooking.  The printer should be the oven as well as the extruder.  I think with the right set of technologies you could create beautiful and delicious culinary art.  I feel a Kickstarter campaign coming on...

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Instant Delivery Race

Amazon Prime has been an amazing thing for us.  It definitely changed our shopping habits by making it so easy to get online goods.  Amazon Prime's two day delivery is pretty amazing too.  It certainly is something that one gets used to pretty quickly.  Now, for a small fee, you can have your Amazon Prime packages delivered the next day.  Of course, all the competitors are getting into the act as well.  Google Shopping Express delivers goods the same day.   eBay Now promises delivery in about an hour.  This escalation has gotten ridiculous, to the point where Amazon has announced Amazon Prime Air.  We love the idea of using multi-rotor copters to do delivery, but it seems like there are a lot of practical issues to resolve before you put this into practice.  For instance, you are sending out a device with whirring blades into the public.  What could go wrong?  I would imagine that these multi-rotor copters will be expensive, so what is to stop someone from stealing it?  What if the weather turns bad while it is enroute?  There are quite a few difficult problems to solve.  This video shows Amazon's vision of how the system would work.

If this race escalates much more, things will really get out of hand.  One potential scenario is shown in this video.

This video is not serious, but it's harder than one might expect to tell it apart from the real one.

My advice?  Settle down everyone.  Patience is a virtue.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Soda, Pop or Coke? US dialects shown visually

Having grown up in the midwest, gone to school in the east and then settled in the west, I'm not quite sure how to say anything.  The video below, however, nicely illustrates some of the ways that language varies in different parts of the country.
Of course, the correct answer to all these questions is what would Walter Cronkite say?  Unfortunately, he is no longer around to ask.

They missed one of the interesting language issues here in California. Here in the bay are, if you need to drive from San Francisco to San Jose you are likely to take 101 south. If you live in LA and you want to get to San Diego, you take "the" 101 south. There is a point somewhere between Monterey and San Luis Obispo where people to the south refer to numbered roads with a "the" in front of it. To the north, you just refer to the number. Go figure.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Surface Tension Dance - Spontaneous motion of dyed liquid droplets

I love it when science and art collide.  OK, this one caught me off guard.  In the video below, researchers Nate J Cira and Manu Prakash, from Stanford, show little drops of liquid dancing around spontaneously on a glass surface based on surface tension.  When sped up, these little buggers look like they are dancing around on the glass slide.  There is a peculiar imbalance between the long distance forces and short distance forces that make the motions quite complex.  Watch and enjoy.
This work is currently being presented at the American Physical Society's annual Division of Fluid Dynamics Meeting.  More info on this work in particular at Physics Central.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vi Hart explains logarithms

People usually develop a pretty good feeling about numerical addition and subtraction early on, but more complex mathematical concepts like logarithms, not so much.  Vi Hart is here to fix that for all of us.  In her own, wonderful way, she tries to teach you the gestalt of logarithms and give you a feeling for what they are and how they work.  Watch the video and get that logarithm-y feeling inside you.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Is this the next step in wind power?

Over a year ago I told you about a wind power generating technique that uses a flying wing to swing around at the end of a tether.  The idea is that you can create a mobile power generation system with a much smaller amount of material than a traditional wind turbine.  The kites or wings can also fly up higher where the winds are more consistent.  Well, it appears that the folks at Makani Power have now made the entire system autonomous.  The company was acquired by Google in May and they are now moving ahead at full speed to create autonomous offshore power generation systems that don't become huge permanent eye-sores for everyone nearby.  If it actually works, it is pretty clever.  Watch the video to see it in action.

Friday, November 15, 2013

This is how to burn your dinner

Photographer Brian Lowry took this strangely compelling video of a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli being consumed by hot lava in Hawaii.  The little jet of flame at the end is like a little ravioli rocket.  I guess that is how you know your dinner is done - and I do mean done.


More pix here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This high school student built a cool aquaponics system

This is a really cool video from Edutopia about a High School student's passion for discovering new ways to grow food.  He learned about Aquaponics (building a closed loop ecosystem of fish and plants) and ran with the idea.  I love it when someone finds a passion and those nearby support or at least don't get in the way of it.  Of course for Pierre, it isn't just the enthusiasm in building the systems, it is that he is driven to expand the system and bring it to his school and share it that really makes this story great.  I'm particularly impressed by the fact that the food they grow on the school premises is now served in the cafeteria.  Very nice!

I think agrotech is a cool interesting up and coming field.  The whole thing is somewhat reminiscent of another group of awesome kids that I've heard about.

More info is available on Edutopia and the Edible Schoolyard Project.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How round are your ball bearings?

Did you know that ball bearings don't need to be spherical to roll smoothly?  Really.  You can make pointy versions that will roll just as well as the round ones.  They just need to have constant diameter, or constant width as they call it since non-circular shapes don't really have a diameter.  The video below shows a fascinating little glimpse into a world of math and physics that kind of intrigued me.  Apparently there are 3-D shapes that are constant width that are not round.  They roll around like ball bearings.  The only reason that we don't make wheels this way is that there is no stationary place to put an axel in the center of the shape.  Take a look at the video to see what I mean.

I think the non-symmetrical shapes are really interesting.  For every sharp pointedness on one side there must be an equivalent flatness to the opposite side in order for it to all balance out.  This allows you to create objects that roll smoothly, but do not have equal weight distribution.  They won't roll away on their own, but they are smooth when used as ball bearings.

It seems to me that this is a great opportunity for playing with a CAD program and a 3D-printer.  You should be able to design all sorts of surfaces of constant width.

For more information, see How Round is Your Circle or buy the book, How Round is your Circle on Amazon.

Soon you will have a Superman suit

OK, so maybe it's just me, but I think we are coming close to making a suit that can turn you or me into Superman.  I recently came across two videos that prove my point.  First was an awesome flying video of a fellow named Yves Rossy, better known as "Jetman", who straps a wing with jets onto his back and flies around.  Sure, it would be even more awesome if the controls allowed him to put his arms out in front of him, Superman style, as he flew.  Still, it is the closest thing I've seen so far to Superman-style flying.

Next, I saw the exoskeleton called the Titan Arm, created by the young engineers from the University of Pennsylvania who won this year's James Dyson award.  It allows you to lift more weight and generally augment your movements.  This video explains the system.

So, the way I see it, with these two different systems you can become stronger and fly, just like the man of steel. How far away can the Superman suit be?  So here is the challenge to all of you out there.  How do we combine these two?  How can your jetpack wings transform into an exoskeleton to help you lift heavy stuff while you are on the ground?  I'm pretty sure that is all you would need to be able to swoop in, save Lois Lane and then fly off.  As soon as you remove the suit, you are Clark Kent again.  A suit for the superhero in all of us.

It's 08:09:10 on 11/12/13 (at least on the US west coast) lets play a game

As this posts, it's 08:09:10 on 11/12/13 (at least on the US west coast).  That is a lot of consecutive number.  I think this calls for a celebration.

Lets have a contest to see how many consecutive numbers you can place in a row in a standard English sentence.

Here is my entry:
"The score was one to three for five innings"
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - nice, eh?

Anyone have anything better?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Quadcopters - just can't get enough...

I'm not quite sure how I missed this one when it came out, but here's a nice TED talk about quadcopter.  It nicely spells out some of the reasons that we love the quadcopters here at Digital Diner.  Four motored, flying awesome as illustrated by the folks at ETH in Switzerland!

Quadcopters are so versatile...  They can even weave webs.

Pretty sure the society for the prevention of cruelty to machines will have a something to say about the next one..


There's plenty more details and lots of cool videos here:

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fab Labs are cool

The red pin marks Lyngen in the extreme north of Norway

One of my favorite places on Earth is at the northern tip of Norway in a little fjord called Lyngen.  On the western side of the bay in this remote location, miles from the nearest city of any significant population, near the northern most tip of all of Europe and well inside the arctic circle, are dramatic landscapes, the sparkling fingers of the Norwegian Sea, and really high speed internet.  You might expect to find Santa's workshop rather than a high-tech mecca in such a remote location, but as you drive down the country road there, the careful observer will notice a small sign by the side of the road that simply says, "MIT Fablab."

The Fab charter posted on the wall in Lyngen
The Fablab in Lyngen, Norway is very impressive.  It is one of 125 Fab Labs around the world built to explore how underserved communities can be empowered by technology.  Often students (many engineering students from MIT) will spend time at a Fab Lab.  Area residents with problems come in and work with the students to make and build solutions.  This started back in the days before Arduinos, Make magazine and the Internet of Things with a class taught at MIT by Neil Gershenfeld called How to Make (almost) Anything.  Neil heads the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT which grew out of the Media Lab there.  He and folks form the Grassroots Invention Group realized early on that there were tools that will change the way that we build stuff.  He anticipated the Maker movement and the transformative effect that computing would have on the physical world during a time that people were much more obsessed with making things virtual.  He even wrote a book about it.  Fab Labs are an amazing manifestation of this philosophy.
In 2011 Neil emailed me about a meeting and when I mentioned that I was in the north of Norway, he insisted that I visit the Fab Lab there.  So we did, and it was fantastic.  Haakon Karlsen, who runs the place, was an incredible host.  I was sold on Fab Labs before, but this was over the top.

The reason I am posting this all this now, two years after our visit, is that I recently came across the documentary below which features a world tour of Fab Labs.  Several scenes take place in the Lygen Fab Lab.  It is a worthy, but longish (45min) movie, so make yourself some popcorn, settle into a comfy chair, and take a look.

We learned about many amazing projects that were created at the Fab Lab in Norway.  The idea that such a beautiful place can be dedicated to collaborative technical development of this caliber is quite inspiring.
Haakon was an amazingly gracious host
Bix returns from picking berries outside the Fab Lab
You can learn more at the Fab Foundation or watch one of Neil's TED talks here

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Make your own microscope

This looks like a neat little project.  We've had our share of fun with microscopes here at Digital Diner.  This particular one looks pretty sweet because you can make it yourself fairly cheaply and it uses the fancy camera parts of your smartphone to give you some advanced functions like time lapse photography.  The tricky bit is finding a cheap laser pointer whose lens you can steal.  Everything else looks very straight forward.  You end up with great, high resolution images showing the wonders of the tiny worlds all around us.  Seems worth a try to me.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Maker event this weekend: Workshop Weekend

This weekend (Oct 12-13) is time for another Workshop Weekend event in Oakland.  If you are in the area and looking for something to do this weekend, check it out.  There are a variety of great classes to choose from.  Of course, Tribe Awesome will be there to teach their signature Awesome Aeroponics class.  If for some reason you haven't taken this class yet, you really should.  If you can't make it to Oakland this weekend, you can find instructions for building your own system on the Tribe Awesome web site.  However, I'll just say that the class is much more interesting in person.  One other little tidbit is that if you sign up with the code 
AEROPONICS0813 you will receive $10 off the registration price, so it can save you a little bit of cash.

More info at Workshop Weekend and here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Leidenfrost effect: More proof that science is cool

I had never heard of the Leidenfrost effect before, but I must say it is kind of cool (well hot actually).  It is basically this, when a liquid comes in contact with something that is significantly hotter than its boiling point, it produces an insulating vapor.  This vapor barrier keeps the liquid from getting hot and boiling.  Usually as a liquid boils it bubbles off in all directions.  However, because of the Leidenfrost effect and surface tension, the liquid can stay on (actually floating just above) the hot surface for much longer than usual.  The folks at the University of Bath used this effect and a set of etched saw tooth patterns to make water move in a certain direction.  Using this, they can get water droplets to actually move up hill.  They created a track that uses this effect to guide water droplets around a course.  It makes me think the whole thing is a sort of Escher drawing where water magically circulates around a closed track.  Check out the video below.

The same effect was used by the Mythbusters to allow them to do something really crazy in the video below.  They dunked their hand into molten lead.  No, really... molten lead.  Quite bizarre and interesting.

oh... and kids... this probably isn't something to try at home.   

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Popular Science shuts off comments - a sad day for the internet and our species

We are breaking the Internet.  I'm not talking about some technical problem that will cause the volume of data to keep us from being able to download Netflix videos in HD.  I'm not talking about the fact that there are millions of new iPhones clogging up the cell towers.  No, I'm talking about us -- you, me and everyone -- ruining the ideal of the Internet.  We are breaking the very value proposition that makes the Internet the awesome thing that it could be.  The Internet has feet of clay.

For me, the big letdown started with filter bubbles.  In the early 90s, I was completely bought in to the idea that the Internet would bring us together.  It would become this great democratizing force that would give everyone a voice.  Free flowing information would break down barriers across societal boundaries.  It was going to be awesome.  Well, it has had some of that effect, but more recently it has also had a segregating effect.  Filter bubbles allow people to live in a world on the internet created just for them.  The Internet is adapting to show them only the information that is relevant to them, and in the process limiting the free flow of information.  Instead of hear about a lot of diverse opinions, complex analytics engines on far away servers whir away to make sure that I only get server content that is "relevant" to me.  My data is filtered to assure, among other things, that I will see information that I agree with.  I will tend to find more people who have the same opinion as me.  Rather than exposing me to more new ideas, it will reinforce my current beliefs.  I can live in a filter bubble with other people like me (who I can find now much more easily than in the pre-Internet world) and we can go on happily reinforcing our views and ignoring anything that might challenge us.  A TED talk on this topic by Eli Pariser explains the problem.

Today, the Internet took the next step down a long, lonely road of self destruction.  Popular Science announced that they were shutting off the user comments on their web site.  In a well written piece published today entitled "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," they explain why they feel compelled to stop allowing the general public to comment on their articles.  It basically boils down to trolls; people who post derogatory or inflammatory comments for whatever reason.  Rather than sane discourse, people post comments to sway or influence in spite of contrary facts.
Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. 
They quote Brossard and Scheufele who wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times claiming that comments on web stories influence people's interpretation of the validity of the original story.  They want the scientific merits of their stories to stand on their own, not be influenced by any crazy person with a keyboard.  Rather than getting into a potentially biased process of editing users comments, they've taken the difficult decision to shut down all comments for everyone.

Really?  Seriously?

Lets just think about this for a second folks.  This is Popular Science, not some high brow scientific journal.  It is stories about flying cars and Mars colonies.  They bring interesting scientific trends and their implications to all of us.  They exist to inspire us, not to provide a platform for debate.  Yet, they find themselves so besieged with spam and misinformation that they feel compelled to cut off comments.  Do people really think that they can change facts by ignoring them or denying them?  This seems to me like a rather short term strategy because ultimately the truth will come out.  This isn't the democratization that the Internet was supposed to bring us, is it?  Please, can we focus on educating each other rather than fighting?  Can we reason with each other instead of arguing without evidence?  I feel sorry for the people at Popular Science.  And I feel sorry for us all.

Come on folks we're better than this.  I know we are smart enough to handle the power of this Internet thing, after all, we were smart enough to invent it (or was that just Al Gore?  I forget).  It is a very powerful tool and we really need to use it to make ourselves smarter, not misinform and obfuscate.  If you can't play nice, I'm going to pull the car over and come back there.  Don't tempt me because I will!  Right now I need everyone to take a deep breath and count to ten.  Now more than ever, it is up to you.  To counteract this ugliness in the world, I need all of you Digital Diner readers to redouble your efforts to build cool stuff, inspire each other and make the Internet a great place for us all.  It's the only way to keep the world safe for awesomeness.  It's up to you!  Let's go!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Making the Wizard of Oz 3D

Back a 10+ years ago, I spent some time at Warner Brothers studios trying to convince them that they should convert to all digital.  The idea of storing images on film seems so arcane.  After seeing how they worked and thinking about it, I changed my mind.  While production and post processing/editing make sense in digital, film is a wonderful archiving medium.  As we talked about recently, digital is not the best way to store something for an unspecified length of time because it isn't clear what format will be most compatible with future systems.  You can always pick up a piece of film and look at it.  There will always be a way to view it.
I'm really glad that they had the Wizard of Oz on film because Warner Brothers has been busy restoring it and converting it to 3D.  They have a rather manual process for converting from 2D to 3D (not like the system we recently talked about), but the results will certainly impress.  They had over 1300 people working on it by hand for 14 months.  The movie itself is a little over 100 minutes long.  At 24 per frames per second, that works out to less than 150,000 frames or a little over 100 frames per person.  I'm pretty sure that I could make 100 frames look pretty good in 14 months.  No news about whether or not they listened to Pink Floyd while working on it (you should try this).
The video below gives a hint about how the 3D process worked.

More information available here and here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Bohemian Gravity

This song is really geeky and quite epic.  Science and music in package that is destined to become a classic.  Very impressive.  As one of the comments says, this is like Graduate Schoolhouse Rock.  I mean... it's like one unified theory of everything all wrapped up in a song.  Awesome!  Listen and learn.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Revisiting Fibonacci in nature

Lots of our readers enjoy Vi Hart and her amazing videos on the beauty of mathematics.  One particular favorite was the video on Fibonacci numbers.  She has since followed up with a few more on the topic that attempt to explain why it is that we find Fibonacci in nature.  I find this video from Vi Hart especially fascinating when combined with the second video from Etérea studios.  The world is quite an amazing place, don't you think?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Extracting 3D objects from images

If this is for real, it is very impressive.  It is from a presentation at the SIGGRAPH conference, so I presume it is real...  In the video below, some folks have come up with a technique for extracting 3D objects from 2D images.  Not worrying about the fact that it is impossible (since there is no way to know what is on the far side of an object in a 2D image), they appear to have used a set of techniques from photo editing programs like Photoshop, combined with modeling techniques from programs like Blender to allow you to create three dimensional computer models of objects from two dimensional images.  This technique is limited to symmetrical objects, but it certainly opens up exciting possibilities.  The future is sure to be an exciting and interesting place.

America's Cup - Catch it before it ends

Last weekend we went to see the America's Cup.  It was a beautiful day, and it was amazing to watch the boats fly across the water.  It is one of those things that I've wanted to do since I was a kid.  Oracle Team USA is defending the title they won three years ago.  The winner of the recent Louis Vuitton Cup, Emirates Team New Zealand race series is the challenger for oldest continuously contested trophy in sports.  Unfortunately the races were a little underwhelming.  New Zealand led from the first mark to the end on both races Saturday.  Sunday was quite a bit more exciting with New Zealand and USA splitting the two races.  Today New Zealand won another race.  The Kiwis are looking very strong.  I still think that the Red Bull Youth America's Cup series with ten boats racing at a time was much more impressive to watch.  That was exciting racing!  

While it is amazing to see the America's Cup spectacle in real life, the television coverage is quite outstanding.  The video below shows the technology involved in TV coverage which is available on YouTube.  They are able to track incredible amounts of live telemetry and turn it into things like overlays on the screen that show a grid, not unlike a football field, in the San Francisco Bay.  When you watch in person, you have to interpret all of this yourself.  In some ways, the TV coverage is much easier to follow.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Raspberry Pi Micro MiniMac almost solves my problem (why digital data isn't always good for archiving)

This could ALMOST solve a recent problem we had here at Digital Diner.
A fellow named John has built a magical little masterpiece.  It is a Raspberry Pi-based micro Macintosh.  It is a 1/3 scale replica of the original Mac... you know, the 1984 one.  It actually runs Mac OS 6, which is quite amazing.  It is quite small and quite cute.

It is a great piece of work and the result is pretty impressive.  The case is packed with a Raspberry Pi, a power supply, a small display and a USB hub.  While the disk drive is not real, this Mac has a color display, USB and Ethernet, which the original didn't.  Plus it is based on a $35 computer... I think my original Mac was $1800 (in 1984 dollars).

Now to the problem that this almost solved.  A while ago, one of Monika's advisors contacted her to see if they could get some of the data from her PhD thesis.  Now I don't think that data is, um, well, really old.  We tried to figure out where it might be and decided that it was probably on an old Mac SE in the garage (see? you should never throw anything away).  Well, I pulled it out and fired it up and after many years of being ignored, it fired right up.  There was a Y2K bug, so I had to set the clock back to 1999, but otherwise the system just worked.  Strangely, it seemed to boot much faster than any of my modern machines.  After taking a little trip down memory lane and then wandering through the disk drive for a bit, we were able to track down the data that had been requested.  So far, so good.

This is where the problem began.  You see, we found the data file and could even fire up a program to look at the values, but the next step was a bit of a problem.  How do we get the data off this old Mac?  I found some old floppies, so I could copy the data there, but then what?  I don't have any way to get data from a 3.5" floppy onto a modern machine.  Maybe I could connect it to the network?  Nope.  The only network this thing supported was AppleTalk, which was a glorified serial port.  Maybe I could plug a flash drive into the USB port?  Nope... no USB port.

So even though the Mac fired up and ran amazingly well, and even though we found the data, there was no way to get it to a modern computer.  Still, the problem could have been worse.  It was promising that at least the data was in a format that could be read by Excel.  If it was in some old, unsupported database format or something like that, there would have been very little hope.

As it turned out, before I had to reverse engineer AppleTalk, they found another source for the data, and I was off the hook.  Still, this whole process got me thinking.  Digital data seems wonderful for archiving because it doesn't change over time, but really it has some significant problems.  First is the issue that bits are volatile and they can be lost.  We were lucky that this computer booted at all after decades of non-use.  Second is that the breakneck speed of change in the computer industry has led us to changing standards that cause many devices (and their data) to become orphaned.  My Mac SE still runs, but it is an island.  I can't figure out any good way to get it to interact with modern computers (without committing to a lot of work).  We are rapidly speeding away from storing our data on rotating disks of rust and moving to solid state drives.  How long will it be until computers with Ethernet can't be connected because everyone uses wireless?  How long until we stop storing images as .jpg files, or (a more immediate concern) software stops supporting my old DSLR's raw image format?

What will archeologists discover when they dig through our stuff many thousands of years from now?  Will they be able to learn anything about our society?  Will they be able to resurrect YouTube to find out the cat worshiping people that we were?  Or will they be left with unrecognizable petrified hard drives with no explanation of what they meant to us; no idea of the secrets they contained?

I once spoke to Brewster Kahle about this.  His internet archive project is a truly outstanding piece of work, but he knows that even if he could be successful at archiving every piece of information on the network, he still has the problem of changing data formats that may render it all obsolete.  The data we archive needs to be taken care of and kept alive.  Storage isn't enough.

This is why I appreciate it when people resurrect old systems, as with the old version of Mac OS above.  It is a service to us all that they keep history alive.  So while this little 1/3 scale Mac didn't make it possible to retrieve Monika's thesis data, it represents a step toward keeping our digital legacy alive.  To that I say Thank You!

Read more information about the Mini Mac project here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Hold on to your phone, don't send it to heaven, and why accelerometers don't really measure acceleration.

Here's a little advice.  Hold on to your phone.  There has been some discussion at work recently about an app that encourages you to throw your phone in the air.  When you do, it tells you how high you threw it. That's it.  Of course, it tells you how you did compared to others, thus encouraging you to throw your phone higher and higher until... well... I would image this story rarely ends well.  Eventually I would think either the smartphone isn't caught and it splatters on the concrete, or worse, it hits an unwitting bystander on the head.  The app is called SMTH which stands for "Send Me To Heaven," and it seems to be gaining popularity.  Resist!  I must say that I do love the quote in the marketing of this app, “Probably the last game I´ll ever play on my current phone.”  Someone is having fun.

Still, it is interesting to understand how this application works.  Some of you may assume that the GPS is used to track the altitude of the phone when you throw it, but this is not the case.  GPSes are notoriously bad at calculating altitude, so they cannot be accurate enough to measure a throw of a meter or two.  Most phones have no altimeter.  So how do they measure how high the phone is thrown?  It turns out that they use accelerometers and the same principle that makes astronauts experience weightlessness on the International Space Station, even though they are in orbit and very much under the effects of Earth's gravity (Disclosure: the truth is that I have no information about how they do it, but I know how I did it a few years ago and it is all about accelerometers).   You can learn a little bit about how accelerometers work in the little video I put together for you on part of this subject.

To understand how this is used to calculate height of a thrown smartphone, you'll have to read on...

Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Perseid meteor shower is really just bugs on our windshield

Perseid meteors over the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile - Photo: S. Guisard
Nature is putting on a show and you are invited.  Every year at about this spot in the Earth's orbit, we run into some debris in space. We move through a cloud of rocks and ice (which are remnants left behind comet Swift-Tuttle long ago) much the same way that a car driving through a swarm of bugs on the highway may get a few on its windshield.  Fortunately for us, the splat made by this debris is much more interesting to look at and not something we need to clean off next time we stop at the service station.  Instead, these bits are vaporized as they hit the atmosphere, and they leave behind lovely trails that we call the Perseid meteor shower.  Don't worry, this space stuff is pretty small, so none of it will make it to the surface - there isn't anything to worry about - there is just a lovely view.

To see this light show best, find a dark place, away from city lights.  You don't need a telescope or binoculars.  The best tool for watching this show is just your naked eyes.  Lie on your back and look up (I like imagining that I'm floating in space and the entire Earth is my giant backpack, but that is just me).  It can take about 30 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness.  You should start to see shooting stars... as many as 50 per hour.  Go on and give it a try.  The peaks from August 11-13, so don't miss it.  ...and to all you space dust particles from Swift-Tuttle, watch out for that big blue marble headed toward you!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Mini quadcopters to take sensor measurements!

We love the quadcopters here at Digital Diner.  It seems that every day someone is doing something new and cool that involves a quadcopter one way or another.  Today is no different.  A former colleague of mine, Chris Fustings has been having fun with some very tiny little quadcopters.  The Crazyflie is a nano quadcopter from a company called Bitcraze in Sweden.  It is a slight 19 grams in weight and a mere 9 cm span from motor to motor, but still it includes sensors and controls that let it fly like the big boys.  The specs are pretty impressive.  For $120-$180 you get, 7 minutes of flight time, a low energy radio, wireless firmware updating, a 72Mhz 32bit processor, 3-axis accelerometers, gyros, magnetometers and altimeter in a cute little package that can carry a 5-10 gram payload.  Pretty impressive if you ask me.  The 10 degree of freedom (DOF) version of the quadcopter has enough sensors and processing power to do sensor fusion and stabilized flight, although the software has not yet been written (sounds like an opportunity!).

So what can you do with these?  Chris took one and added a distance sensor to it so that he could do a little obstacle avoidance.  His blog does a nice job of laying out the steps so that you can do the same should you desire.  This is a promising start, but he has dreams of doing much more.  He imagines setting up one of these little gadgets to autonomously explore and measure a 3 dimensional grid by autonomously flying to predetermined locations and taking sensor readings.  Quite cool.  Imagine fitting one of these guys out with a geiger counter (a really small one) and flying it around the Fukushima power plant to create a 3D map of radiation.  We just need some really light weight sensors and a really good method for determining 3D location.   You should get to work on this right away.

Take a look at Chris' blog post, get one of these little gadgets and have some fun!  Nice job Chris.

Monday, July 29, 2013

America's Cup Racing on the San Francisco Bay

I could only capture the two boats together at the start.
After that they were never close together again

You may recall that we went to see some sailboat racing a few months ago.  Yesterday we braved the foggy San Francisco weather again to see the Louis Vuitton Cup races on the San Francisco Bay.  If you haven't been following sailing, you may be excused for not knowing that 3 years ago team BMW/Oracle won the America's Cup in the Mediterranean Sea and now team Oracle is hosting the challengers to the oldest active trophy in international sports, here in the San Francisco Bay.  The America's Cup is a match race between two boats; the defender and the challenger.  The defender is the last winner and current holder of the cup.  They get to write the rules for the next competition.  The challenger, who will compete against the Team Oracle and the Golden Gate Yacht Club in this case, is being decided through a series of races called the Louis Vuitton Cup.  Whoever wins that series of races will compete against Team Oracle in September in the America's Cup.

I have two sporting events that I try to follow; the Tour De France and the America's Cup.  Both have been difficult to watch in the last few years.  Just as it appears that Tour De France has been decided by doctors with pharmaceuticals, the America's Cup is decided by lawyers.  There are constant challenges to the rules and court decision that have a significant effect on the outcome of the race.  It feels like something where deals are struck in smokey back rooms.  

Still, I am mesmerized and watch.  The technology in these boats is crazy.  I first got interested in the America's cup as a boy many years ago when the boats were 12 meter, mono-hull sailboats.  Now they are carbon fiber miracles with wings for sails that literally fly over the water at 40 knots (~45mph) in a 20 knot (~23mph) breeze.  When you see a 70+ foot boat "foiling" (rise out of the water) using only wind power, it is invigorating.  It is magical.  And it is over much too fast as they sail out of view.
Team New Zealand "flying" over the water
This brings us to the competition itself.  There are three contenders for the Louis Vuitton cup;  Emerates Team New Zealand, Italy's Luna Rossa Challenge and Sweden's Artemis Racing.  Artemis Racing had an accident in which their boat was heavily damaged and sadly one crew member died.  They are rebuilding their boat, but in the mean time there are only two contenders for the Louis Vuitton Cup.  Those are the two we saw this weekend.  Team New Zealand cleaned Luna Rossa's clock.  New Zealand got an advantage at the start and never looked back.  They were significantly faster on every point of sail.  This led me to the weird perspective that Luna Rossa, flying along at 35 knots, was "slow."  The boats we are used to sailing will do about 8-10 knots under ideal conditions.  This bears very little resemblance to the sailing sport that I know.

The "slower" Luna Rossa speeding across the bay
As I mentioned before, the holder of the cup gets to make up the rules for the next challenge.  These high-tech wonders are the result of something called the AC72 rule.  It defines what is allowed and not allowed in the race.  The boats and the race itself are designed to make sailing into a more interesting sport for TV.  The boats are big, fast, beautiful, shiny and extreme.  Sailing hasn't traditionally been a big spectator sport, but these boats are designed to race close to shore where we can watch the race.  The boats go so fast that they disappear from view pretty quickly, but they are still very impressive to see live.  From a spectator point of view, I think a real issue is that the competition hasn't been very exciting so far.  Because Artemis is out until they have their new boat ready, the only races between multiple boats have been between Team New Zealand and Luna Rossa.  Every time, Team New Zealand has won decisively.  It's not much of a competition so far.  I think there are a few issues that need to be addressed to make this more exciting for viewer.  The boats are so expensive that only a few of them exist.  Several challengers dropped out because they weren't able to raise the many millions of dollars to build a competitive boat.  When a single accident can cost 10s of millions of dollars, it isn't something you are going to casually make in your garage.  This limits the number of teams that compete, which in turn limits the appeal to the spectators.  Add to this the fact that the boats move so fast that boats that are even just a few seconds apart seem pretty separate on the water.  They don't interact with each other much.  Hopefully as we get further along in the competition they will be more closely matched and the competition will get more interesting.

So far, the technology involved is compelling to me, including the TV coverage on Youtube which is interesting to watch.  If you'd like to see for yourself, you can find the schedule of races here, and the America's Cup YouTube Channel is here.  Or you can watch the recording of the race that we saw live here.  I do hope the competition gets more interesting soon because this has the potential to be quite an exciting spectacle.  All I know is that in September, I expect to knock another item off my life list if I get to attend an America's Cup race live.

For the gadgeteers in the crowd, you can see an inside view of the America's Cup boats through the eyes of the Maker Camp hangout below.  They visited Team Oracle in a couple weeks ago and give you a little glimpse into the technology and expertise that goes into building a world class racing sailboat, like a sewing machine that can sew through carbon fiber sails.

For more information see the official America's Cup site or

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Build a WaterColorBot and paint that masterpiece...

Super Awesome Sylvia is at it again. This time she has teamed up with the folks at Evil Mad Scientist Labs to create a printer that paints with watercolors. It is pretty clever and seems like quite a bit of fun.  They have started a Kickstarter campaing to get it off the ground, and only a couple days in they have already reached their target goal of $50,000.  Good job!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How the Tesla Model S is built

Here in Silicon Valley, the all electric Tesla Model S is showing up everywhere.  We have a little game we play when we go out where we try to spot as many Tesla's as we can.  It is a gorgeous car and an exciting glimpse into the future of automotive design.  One thing that you don't see on the street is how the car is manufactured.  My grandfather worked for GM, but I'm not sure he would recognize this factory at all.  The video below gives a glimpse into how the Tesla Model S is built.  I find it fascinating to watch the robots at work.

In case you are interested, I also came across this nice article for a behind the scenes look at the Tesla Headquarters

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Raspbery Pi Microwave Oven

A developer by the name of Nathan Broadband has created a Raspberry Pi based microwave oven.  Why?  Why not?  Here is a list of features according to Nathan:

  • Re-designed touchpad
  • Nicer sounds
  • Clock is automatically updated from the internet
  • Can be controlled with voice commands
  • Can use a barcode scanner to look up cooking instructions from an online database
  • There weren't any online microwave cooking databases around, so I made one:
  • The microwave has a web page so you can control it from your phone (why not), and set up cooking instructions for products
  • Tweets after it's finished cooking something (See
I particularly like the database of settings based on the barcode of the food.  Very nice.

What do you do with a Raspberry Pi powered microwave oven?  Obviously, you make a real Raspberry Pi.

Details of the project can be found here.

Nicely done Nathan!

Aero Velo wins the AHS Sikorsky Prize

Here at Digital Diner, we have showed you human powered quadcopters before.  Several of these have been built to try to capture the AHS Sikorsky Prize of $250,000.  This prize was created back in 1980 for the first human powered helicopter that could hover for one minute and reach a height of 3 meters in altitude while staying within a 10m x 10m box (complete rules are here).  For over 30 years teams have tried to win the prize and failed.  On June 13th, AeroVelo Inc was able to fulfill the requirements as seen in the videos below and win the prize.

It is interesting to me that while some teams built machines that used both arms and legs, in the end a simple bicycle style, legs only, form of locomotion won.  It is an impressive feat of engineering and human ability for sure.  Congratulatiosn to all involved!

...AND, as if that weren't enough, Aero Velo has several projects going.  My favorite is the human powered ornithopter (an airplane that flies by flapping its wings!).  Check out the video of test of this baby at the bottom of the page.

The prize winning flight

The world's first human powered ornithopter

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

How a electronic gadgets are made

I like watching machines at work.  The video above shows how the very cool development board, the BeagleBone Black, is made.  The process is pretty similar for many electronic devices these days whether it is a cellphone or a set top box.  A circuit board gets solder paste applied to it, then parts are placed on the board in the proper position and orientation by a pick-and-place machine.  The resultant assembly goes through an oven to melt the solder.  Any extra components are attached and then the unit is tested, and packaged up for shipping.

For comparison, below is a video that I made back in 2009 showing the process we used to make Sun SPOTs.  You can see that the sequence of events is very similar.  This process, on a large scale, is what  makes it possible for us to have the magical electronic devices that we have at the prices we have them.

The process you see in these videos is also partially responsible for the demise of the hobbyist electronic kit (and places like Heathkit).  The ecosystem is being optimized for the machines in the video.  The parts being placed on these boards are mostly "surface mount" parts that sit on top of the board, not "through-hole" parts that are more practical for individuals to solder.  While the surface mount parts are very small, inexpensive and efficient for the machines to deal with in large quantities, they are very difficult for people to handle with their fingers and solder manually.  Because the parts optimized for the machines have the higher volumes, the "through hole" parts are getting less common and difficult to find.  Also, because of regulations about the use of lead (RoHS), the solder has been reformulated to melt at very high temperatures that make extra challenges for hobbyists.  It certainly limits what a maker can build in their own workshop today.  It is very straight forward for hobbyists to get a printed circuit board made, but getting the parts put onto it can be a difficult and/or expensive proposition.

The forces of nature that are moving the world in this non-hobbyist friendly direction are fairly strong and not likely to change.  The question is how can hobbyists and makers take advantage of this manufacturing technology when building in small numbers?  I think there is hope.  It might not make sense for you to have a pick-n-place machine in your garage,  but there could be inexpensive mail-order services that will stuff the parts in your boards for you.  The difficulty is making this cost effective for us hobbyists.  Loading up the proper parts in a pick-and-place machine is a very manual process.  The different "reels" of parts must be loaded up and programmed into the computer so that it knows where to find the appropriate parts.  When you are building thousands of boards, this preparation time is not a problem.  When you are only building a few boards, this set-up can cost much more than the build.

What is needed is a system that lets me, a hobbyist, spend my own time preparing my parts for the production run.  Better yet would be a system where the parts are delivered from the parts supplier to the fabrication house in machine readable, and robotically manipulatable packaging that works for small numbers of parts (not a reel that has thousands of parts).  If the parts could be automatically loaded into the machine, and I could spend my own time preparing my design for the placement machine then the preparation costs could be minimized.   If we can find a good way to cut down on the set-up costs, I'm certain a new age of custom electronics manufacturing will be on its way.   In the mean time, I think I'll just watch the videos a few more times.

How do you wash your hair in space?

I've always thought that living on the International Space Station would be fun, but it appears that there are a few things that aren't so great.  For instance, washing your hair in space seems like a bit of a pain.
Hey NASA, I don't have that much hair left, so this really isn't a big deal for me... I'm sure the time saved would help me be an extra productive crew member.  Call me.

What would happen if you swallowed and entire orchestra?

I'm not sure if this guy, Tom Thum, swallowed an entire band or if he is just the illegitimate child of Bobby McFerrin and Mel Blanc.  Whatever the explanation, he can make more sounds with his mouth than, well, Gerald McBoing-Boing (an awesome short film based on a story by Dr Suess and winner of the 1950 Academy Award for Best Animated Short)

Of course, watching is fun, but trying it yourself is even more fun.  You can learn how to do a little bit of your own beat boxing by just following along with the video below.  C'mon!  Say it with me!  Boots, Cats, Boots, Cats, Boots-n-cats-n-boots-n-cats...

Monday, July 8, 2013

Maker Camp is under way

This is a boat... no really.
As we reported earlier, Maker Camp is under way.  It started yesterday and so we here at Digital Diner decided to try it out.  Bix made a lovely paddle boat out of some plastic bottles, and we were able to float it in the bath tub.  Simple yet somehow awesome.  You can learn to build your own here.  And, by the way, it is important to actually go through the exercise of building stuff.  As our acquaintance Jim Wiltens says, "there is a difference between knowing and doing."

The boat in action
Every day they will have new projects and things to learn in live Google hangouts online which you can attend as they happen or tune in later.  ...and its all free.  Tomorrow will be all about balloon blimps.  It sure seems like a fun way to spend a summer day.  

More info at Maker Camp online.

Friday, July 5, 2013

This time lapse of plants growing is simply amazing

We live in an incredible world.  If you have any doubts, just watch this video.  Filmmaker Daniel Csobot has created this macro time-lapse video of seeds growing into plants over a four month period.  I find it stunning, and it just makes me feel that plants are incredibly animate  but they live on a different time scale than us.  Who says watching the grass grow is dull?

The film itself is beautiful.  To learn a few tricks about how to make your own, check out the website novalapse.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Visualizing Electromagnetic Fields

In yesterday's post I mentioned my interest in ham radio as a youngster.  I think part of the intrigue comes from the idea that there are these invisible fields around us all the time and they can be used to communicate information.  It seems like magic.  Some folks have been coming up with techniques to visualize this hidden world.  I like this idea.  The video above shows the electromagnetic fields around electronic devices by taking long exposure photos while moving an android phone configured as an electromagnetic field meter along the device in question.  It is a great technique and the results are informative and artistic.

Someone else did something similar with RFID below.  In this case they used a device that blinks whenever the RFID reader senses it.  The space it defines is the area in which the reader can sense an RFID (ie how close an RFID tag needs to be in order for the reader to sense it).